Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

The Need for Critical Thinking

Facts are a tricky thing, but the importance and recognition of them is vital in order to consider yourself a critical thinker. In this era of ‘alternative facts’ and opinionated media, it’s necessary to be able to read, analyze, and think about all of the information that you’ve been taking in and figure out for yourself if it’s truthful or nonsense. In this day and age, opinions are easy to find everywhere but what have become harder to find are the cold, hard facts. The famous expression, “take it with a grain of salt” can be applied to you if you want to be a critical thinker.

The first thing you have to do, as a critical thinker is to be able to sort out the facts from the falsehoods. You should be able to use more than one source of information and before you use those sources of information, you need to verify that they are both unbiased and trustworthy. The evidence that you gather for these facts have to be based off of real sources, who have compiled the information and verified its’ authenticity.

For example, if you’re a Chemistry student and you’re trying to do an experiment on making a chemical volcano, would you choose to get the information from an actual scientist who has their PhD and teaches Chemistry at a local university or would you trust the advice of a best friend in your Science class instead?

While it’s desirable to be a good friend and trust them because they would like to help you most likely, it’s likely their advice will pale in comparison to the Chemistry professor with the PhD who wrote a ‘how to’ article on chemical experiments in the latest edition of ‘Science Weekly.’ If you’re a critical thinker, you would choose option #2 100% of the time because you would like to create an experiment that’s going to be the best that it can be and using your friend’s advice won’t get you to that point.

Regardless of what professional or educational field that you decide to pursue, you’re going to need critical thinking. Being inherently skeptical at first of the information you’re receiving is important to do because you need to be able to discern if what you’re reading, watching, listening to, etc. is factual. In your daily life, you’re going to need to identify prejudice, bias, propaganda, etc. that you’re likely to encounter in your daily life. You have to do your best to discern fact from fiction even if it takes some time. You could decide to ingest every bit of information that you see in the news or at the office as being factual but it would benefit you instead to deep a bit digger by doing your research, verify the source(s), bounce it off other pieces of information to see if there’s a pattern, and then decide if it’s factual.

A true critical thinker is not lazy and does not take shortcuts. He or she goes the extra mile to gather the right information, prioritize it to give it credence in your decision-making, and then recognize, solve the problems in order to move on to the next goal. If you’re in a field where you’re working with data on the computer, you have to be able to interpret it, evaluate it, and then use it for your business or company’s needs. By being able to communicate effectively and clearly is also a necessity when it comes to being able to take those fresh facts you’ve verified and then pass it on to the next person so they know that they’re not being misled by you.

As a critical thinker, it’s also necessary to disregard generalizations made about complex topics, which require in-depth research and analysis. Instead, critical thinking also necessitates the ability to draw conclusions from the evidence and the facts that you have gathered. Then, you have to be able to pass those conclusions on to the right people so they know what’s true and what’s false.

Conclusions that you’ve made in the past can sometimes change in the present or in the future so it’s vital to not be stubborn about your beliefs. Critical thinking requires that you also be flexible in your beliefs especially if you’re able to take in new evidence, and logic. A man or a woman who does not change their views on anything despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary cannot consider himself or herself to be a true critical thinker. While it can be difficult to let go of your innate biases and prejudices, you still should be open-minded and be able to accept the truth and the facts even if they contradict with yours.

If your mother, someone who you loved and respected, happened to have told you one day that the sky was the color red instead of blue, would you accept her statement at face value or would you go outside of the house to check, verify her statement to see if it was true or false? If you are not a critical thinker and a great son, you would choose option #1 and believe that statement without actually checking to see if it’s true. If you are a critical thinker but still a good son, you would choose option #2 and tell your mother later that the sky is actually blue because you went outside to see its’ color for yourself. Even if your mom might be offended by your conclusion, she would still love and respect you for being a critical thinker as is necessary.

To put it bluntly, there are a lot of people out there in different industries that are not critical thinkers and they’re hoping the same about you. I don’t want to name names but you’re likely to encounter them in your neighborhood, your city, and your city. However, if you’re able to develop the right personal habits and characteristics, you’ll be able to set yourself apart as a real critical thinker rather than just a person who believes what he hears, reads, or listens to all of the time regardless of the source it’s coming from.

Those habits involve being a problem solver, an evidence gatherer, a decision maker, a rational thinker, being able to reason with others, and an inquisitive learner above all else. While critical thinking isn’t mandatory in life, you’ll still go a lot further and succeed more when you put those skills and habits to use when compared to those who don’t. If you’re an open-minded, intelligent, mature, and inquisitive person, you’ll turn out to be a good critical thinker and a positive example for others to follow.